A group of Pitt education students will be headed to Egypt next summer, intent on dispelling common stereotypes of the Islamic world for their future students.
The University Center for International Studies and the Consortium for Education Resources on Islamic Studies will be sponsoring a trip for 12 education and Arabic students to spend six weeks in Egypt studying Egyptian culture and language. Though the specific criteria for admission into the program is still undecided, the goal of the trip is to expose future school teachers to the Islamic world.
Elaine Linn, the assistant director of the Global Studies Center, said that she noticed a disturbing trend involving education majors and study abroad programs.
"Education majors don't study abroad, and those who do typically don't go to the Middle East. Yet they will be the ones who will be teaching world cultures and Islamic studies," Linn said. She is also in charge of community outreach for the Consortium for Educational Resources on Islamic Studies. "That is why we targeted those students."
While in Egypt, the students will take part in various classes with topics ranging from Arabic language and gender roles to world history. Even though the program is still in its preliminary stages, the main focus will be to break down stereotypes through learning about Arabic culture and immersing the students in the Islamic World.
The news of this trip couldn't have come in a more timely fashion. In January, a popular revolution in Egypt overthrew long time president Hosni Mubarak.
Even though the protests in Egypt were largely peaceful, especially compared to those in Libya where full scale armed conflict erupted, the U.S. State Department issued and then rescinded a travel warning on Egypt. The five Pitt students that were studying abroad in Cairo this past spring were evacuated after the protests broke out.
Linn said that, should such a travel warning be put in place for next summer by the State Department or the University, the center would abide by the recommendation. Even with the recent security concerns, they are moving forward with the program.
Matthew Sudnik, a history teacher at Central Catholic High School, an all-boys Catholic School in Oakland, went on a similar four-week trip to Egypt in the summer of 2009, an experience he said had a profound impact on his teaching.
"Students' and Americans' views are often shaped by the images and narratives portrayed in the media," he said.
He pointed to the stock footage of angry Muslim men burning flags as a common way that prejudice is cultivated. He also mentioned a common narrative that he confronted in the classroom about the Muslim Brotherhood that was repeated in the media coverage of this spring's uprising.
The Muslim Brotherhood is Egypt's largest and oldest Islamic organization, according to BBC's website. The movement, which began in the 1920s, initially aimed to spread Islamic morals, but it soon got involved in politics, specifically to rid Egypt of British colonial control and all Western influence. By the 1940s they had as many as 2 million followers, and in 2000 the group won 17 seats in the People's Assembly in Egypt.
Today, the group leads public opposition to the ruling National Democratic Party of former President Mubarak, and has been one of the main triggers to the anti-government protests that began in January.. One of its stated aims, according to the website, is to create a state ruled by Islamic leaders under the slogan "Islam is the solution."
Sudnik said the Muslim Brotherhood isn't the violent organization that it is made out to be. Instead, he compared its members to religious politicians in the United States such as former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum who was often guided by strong religious convictions.
"Glenn Beck would talk about the Muslim Brotherhood, so in the classroom, I would have to teach and respond," he said.
John Werkmeister, a history teacher from Penncrest School District near Erie, said that the 2009 group had a firsthand experience with the Muslim Brotherhood.
"We were supposed to meet with a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and although it's normally a secret society, this guy was pretty open about it," said Werkmeister. "But a few days before we were supposed to meet him, he got arrested."
Both teachers said that this experience allowed them to confront more forcefully negative stereotypes about the Middle East, and breaking down stereotypes is something that Linn said is a goal of the 2012 trip as well.
Werkmeister said that he has seen those ugly stereotypes first hand. He shared the story of a Sikh man living in his hometown. Sikhism is a religion that originated in India, and its followers wrap their uncut hair into turbans. Werkmeister said that the man was often harassed because people thought he was Muslim.
"He ended up cutting his hair and taking off his turban because he didn't feel safe," Werkmeister said. "When you mix ignorance with fear, you get a very dangerous pathology," the teacher said.